After ‘pastillas,’ Senate panel probes human trafficking

Published by rudy Date posted on October 22, 2020

By: DJ Yap, Marlon Ramos, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 22 Oct 2020

MANILA, Philippines — After exposing a multibillion-peso scam involving immigration officers taking bribes from Chinese nationals arriving at the airport, the Senate panel headed by Sen. Risa Hontiveros will investigate reports of human trafficking as a third “revenue stream” of corruption in the Bureau of Immigration (BI).

“If they have a ‘pyramiding scheme’ for those entering the country, it is not far-fetched that their illegal commerce extends to those who are exiting the country,” Hontiveros said on Wednesday.

The chair of the Senate Committee on Women, Children, Family Relations and Gender Equality will look into reports that paid immigration officers were also helping outbound women and children being trafficked by syndicates abroad.

“It appears that the BI has become a one-stop shop for corruption. They have entered into all sorts of activities just to earn a profit,” Hontiveros said in a statement to the Inquirer.

On Tuesday, Hontiveros said corrupt immigration officials had pocketed some P40 billion in bribe money since 2017 by facilitating the entry of Chinese nationals or assisting the departure of trafficked people at the airport.

DOJ action

The Department of Justice (DOJ) would pursue the investigation of the “pastillas scheme” and prosecute erring immigration personnel, Secretary Menardo Guevarra said on Wednesday.

“Those who smear the dignity of their public office will continue to be vigorously investigated and prosecuted,” Guevarra told the Inquirer in a Viber message.

But he said the staggering amount of payola to the BI officials was just “in the realm of mere possibilities” since such illegal acts were usually done without documentary evidence.

“However, a fair indicator of such magnitude, though not necessarily conclusive, is the lifestyle being led by people suspected of wrongdoing in relation to their regular compensation as government employees,” he said.

Guevarra surmised that the low salaries of immigration personnel might have forced some of them to engage in graft and corruption activities. “But low pay is not a valid reason to break the law,” he said.

The National Bureau of Investigation has already filed cases in the Office of the Ombudsman against 19 immigration officers allegedly involved in the pastillas scheme.

BI modernization bill

Guevarra said the DOJ was hoping that Congress would swiftly act on the proposed BI modernization bill to pave the way for an increase in the basic pay of immigration employees. The measure has been pending in the legislature since 2017.

On Tuesday, Hontiveros’ committee ended its nine-month series of inquiries into corruption at the bureau, exposing bribery from the so-called pastillas scam and the visa-upon-arrival (VUA) for Chinese nationals, mostly tourists who intended to work for Philippine offshore gaming operators (Pogos).

In the pastillas scheme, immigration officials allowed the smooth entry of Chinese nationals for a P10,000 “service fee” rolled in white wrapper like the milk candy.

Hontiveros said the racket generated P30 billion in bribes from 3.8 million Chinese arrivals and shared among immigration officers, another P2 billion from Chinese tourists needing visas pocketed directly by some BI officials and the rest from facilitating the departure of trafficked people.

“Our estimate is that the masterminds have pocketed P30 billion. That’s based on the arrival data of Chinese nationals who are non-VUA. As for VUA, another revenue stream, the kickbacks go straight into the pockets of some officials,” she said.

Based on BI figures, some 4 million Chinese nationals have entered the country since 2017.

Third revenue stream

Hontiveros vowed to scrutinize the “seemingly diversified revenue streams borne out of the depth and breadth of corruption at the BI,” including the trafficking of people departing from the airport as the possible third “revenue stream” for corrupt immigration officials.

The senator said the BI rackets practically rolled out the red carpet for the “online gambling industry and the cross-border trafficking of women.”

She said this was made possible through Department Order No. 41 issued by Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II in 2017. The order allowed Chinese nationals to enter the Philippines without a visa issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Previous Senate hearings showed that VUAs were processed by travel agencies, many of which only required a mere screenshot of the applicant’s passport sent via the WeChat app.

“The person involved could have been trafficked by a syndicate, but as long as she or he had no derogatory record on paper, then that person would have been able to enter the country with a VUA,” Hontiveros said.

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